St. Anton am Arlberg
Despite Aspen’s reputation for opulence, this picturesque and funky former mining town set deep in the Elk Mountains of Western Colorado is still an authentic ski town where fun-loving young professionals, working families, hardcore athletes, dedicated environmentalists, and even real ski bums still outnumber the celebrities and third homeowners.
Bordered by national forest, ski areas and wilderness, historic and charming downtown Aspen still boasts more local businesses than banks, including hundreds of restaurants and bars serving everything from a $225 40-oz, 35-day aged Prime Tomahawk (Catch Steak) to a $6 slice at late-night favourite, New York Pizza. Aspen’s arts and culture scene span everything from its infamous quirky forest shrines on the ski areas to world-class art openings and musical acts that feel more Big City Nights than Rocky Mountain High.
For efficient vertical, nothing beats Aspen Mountain or “Ajax.” A top-to-bottom gondola services its 996 meters (3268 feet) of vertical just steps from downtown. The area skis much larger than its compact size suggests. Find the traverses and work multiple fall lines, and you’ll be rewarded with challenging steeps, welcoming trees and barely-skied shots. Don’t skip Lift 1A—the slow double chair accesses lesser-skied terrain that is also some of the steepest.
A ten-minute drive from town, Aspen Highlands straddles a long ridgeline between the valleys of Castle and Maroon creeks. Tight chutes and steep glades hide on every aspect, and even the lower mountain offers some legit terrain. The main attraction? Highlands Bowl. A 45-minute ridge hike (with spectacular views of multiple “14ers”—peaks over 4267 meters) accesses a 3813-metre (12510 feet) summit and over 450 vertical metres (1476 feet) of backcountry-esque skiing. Ski the gut for a wide-open, sustained pitch or down the ridge to the North Woods for adventurous tree runs.
Snowmass is a behemoth,and while much of its 3130 acres represent intermediate terrain, its alpine bowls and aesthetic cliff bands hide some rowdy lines. Snowmass is also home to the resort’s biggest terrain park. The throwback Campground lift accesses the longest steeps on the mountain; try the fence line of Powderhorn on a powder day.
To outsiders, Buttermilk is primarily synonymous with the annual X Games. Its competition-size superpipe, slopestyle course and Big Air jump are among the world's most perfectly sculpted park and pipe features (after the competition, the pipe and jumps open to the public). But to locals, this is where kids progress from first turns to first trees, and the fitness-minded enjoy all-day uphill skiing privileges.
Between its four mountains, Aspen Snowmass boasts 15 on-hill and base-area restaurants, none more famous than cozy Bonnie’s on Ajax, known for their apple strudel and oatmeal pancakes (locals store their own bottles of maple syrup on the shelf) and Cloud Nine, a European-style cabin on Aspen Highlands famous for its dance parties and champagne spraying.
Aspen’s restaurant scene rivals that of large metropolitan cities, with culinary options to suit any palate. Bear Den Aspen serves an assortment of sweet and savory breakfast options, as does Local, voted best coffee shop in Aspen. Hearty mountain lunches abound everywhere, from downtown staples Meat & Cheese and White House Tavern to the infamous Woody Creek Tavern, 24 kilometres/15 miles down valley and former hangout of the late Hunter S. Thompson. For dinner, fine-dining options include favoured Italian spot, Ellina (check out the bar menu), Chef Nobu’s Matsuhisa, serving Aspen’s best sushi in a 120-year-old Victorian house, and Clark’s Oyster Bar. For a more casual experience, the historic J-Bar in the Hotel Jerome serves a great burger, and Pyramid Bistro serves creative, health-conscious cuisine. Affordable, family-friendly spots include Big Wrap, New York Pizza and the Limelight Lounge in Aspen, and Home Team BBQ at the base of Buttermilk.
Aspen’s nightlife needs little introduction. Aspenites like to party, and whether it’s Monday or Friday, there’s always some action to be found in one of the town’s 100+ bars and restaurants. Find an affordable pint at Aspen Brewery, Highlands Alehouse or the newly reopened Red Onion (Aspen’s oldest bar). The Belly Up, Aspen’s premiere live-music venue and bar, draws the world’s most prominent performers.
The Little Nell, at the base of Ajax, stands apart as Aspen’s only Five-Star, Five-Diamond, ski-in/ski-out hotel. Aspen Street Lodge, an eco-conscious residential-style luxury retreat, includes a two-bedroom penthouse suite and nine spacious bedrooms that sleep from 22–32 guests for a full buyout—at a high price. The newly renovated Limelight Hotel Aspen offers laid-back comfort and the community’s favourite lounge in the heart of downtown. At the same time, ski-in, ski-out Limelight Hotel Snowmass helped revive the moribund Snowmass Base Village. St. Moritz Lodge & Condominiums offers Aspen’s last affordable accommodations.
Head out to the T-Lazy-7 ranch on Maroon Creek Road for a two-hour snowmobile tour to Maroon Lake and the Maroon Bells—Colorado’s most coveted view. Or, opt for a human-powered adventure: Nordic ski (or take a horse-drawn sleigh) from the historic ghost town of Ashcroft to lunch or dinner at Pine Creek Cookhouse, an alpine, log-cabin restaurant with spectacular views of the Castle Creek Valley.
Owned by two guides, Aspen Expeditions is Aspen’s one-stop guide operation, with an extensive network of qualified guides for backcountry skiing, ski mountaineering and hut trips.
Wander the free galleries of the world-class Aspen Art Museum, exploring innovative contemporary art and enjoying a bite or beverage at the rooftop café.
A Hut Trip. One of Aspen’s greatest assets is its backcountry hut network—perhaps the best in North America. Check huts.org and search mid-week availability at nearby 10th Mountain Division Huts (McNamara, Benedict and Margy’s) or the town’s own beloved Braun Huts. Of the latter’s eight huts, the Markley, Lindley, Tagert and Green-Wilson are best suited for single-night stays, with approaches that take between one and three hours.
Between four mountains, Aspen Snowmass offers over 5500 acres of terrain, and because visitors aren’t all here for skiing (why ski when you can shop, dine and drink?), lift lines are practically non-existent. Despite its cloud-raking altitude (2410 meters/7908 feet), the sun shines in Aspen some 300 days a year, delivering a warmer climate than other Colorado ski towns like Crested Butte and Telluride. Nevertheless, snowfall here is more consistent than these resorts; Aspen’s annual eight metres most often comes in more frequent refreshes than huge dumps
→ Skiable area: four mountains, 5500 acres (2226 hectares); 336 trails
→ Parks: 6, spread across Buttermilk and Snowmass and ranging from the X Games slopestyle course and pipe to the Lowdown beginner park at Snowmass and the family Ski Cross Course at Buttermilk
→ Longest run: 8.5 kilometres (Long Shot, Snowmass)
→ Terrain mix:(beginner/intermediate/advanced)
Aspen Mountain: 0%/48%/52%
Aspen Highlands: 18%/30%/52%
→ Lifts: 40 (including three gondolas)
→ Snowmaking coverage: 658 acres (266 hectares)
→ Vertical : 1343 m/4406 ft; top elevation 3813 m/12510 ft
Getting there: Aspen is far enough from Denver (322 kilometres/200 miles) and far enough off Interstate 70 (the east-west freeway infamous for its traffic jams) to eliminate weekend warriors. Aspen’s airport is perhaps the most convenient in ski country—a 10-minute drive from downtown with nonstop flights from ten major U.S. destinations.
Start photo: Dan Bayer